The Ch’uan Teng Lu [The Transmission of the Lamp] records a fascinating encounter between Tao-hsin and the sage Fa-yung, who lived in a lonely temple on Mount Niu-t’ou, and was so holy that the birds used to bring him offerings of flowers. As the two men were talking, a wild animal roared close by, and Tao-hsin jumped. Fa-yung commented, “I see it is still with you!” – referring, of course, to the instinctive “passion” (klesa) of fright. Shortly afterwards, while he was for a moment unobserved, Tao-hsin wrote the Chinese character for “Buddha” on the rock where Fa-yung was accustomed to sit. When Fa-yung returned to sit down again, he saw the sacred Name and hesitated to sit. “I see,” said Tao-hsin, “it is still with you!” At this remark Fa-yung was fully awakened … and the birds never brought any more flowers.
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, 1999, pp. 89-90
From the early to mid-twentieth century, the United States saw an increasing interest in East Asian religions such as Zen Buddhism. Along with modern variants of bohemianism and drug experimentation, Zen fuelled the counterculture movement and its striving for more fluid and open forms of consciousness. This period also marked a renewed concern with our relationship with non-human beings and environments. In this workshop, we’ll read poets who, through the influence of Zen Buddhism, reshaped their poetic experimentation and reflected on the relationship between poetics and the environment. We’ll begin by examining the main principles of Zen in a comprehensive and accessible way. We’ll also touch on contemporary definitions of ecopoetics and study examples of the impact of Zen Buddhism on modernist American experimentalism. We’ll read poets such as William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Gary Snyder, E. E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, and Jane Hirshfield. By analysing the influence of Zen on modernist American poetry we will also reflect on how Zen has contributed (and still contributes) to poetic practices that are attuned to the climate crisis. By doing so, our aim is to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Zen Buddhism in enabling alternative forms of ecological awareness (at the material and spiritual levels) for contemporary poetic practice.
The workshop is comprised of:
Introduction to Zen and ecopoetics. Poetry reading that will serve as inspiration for our writing prompts (1 hour);
poetry writing session (1 hour);
reading and discussion of the poems produced (1 hour).
Part of a short series of poetry writing workshops on ecopoetics and spirituality, organised jointly by the IMLR and Senate House Library.